Every year, summer heat kills dozens of workers and injures thousands more. As such, summer heat is a critical safety factor to account for. Heat exhaustion, and its deadlier cousin heat stroke, can produce life-threatening acute symptoms and long-term complications. Also, a single heat injury leaves people more susceptible to future heat injuries, so they’re a high priority risk.
If your crew’s busy season is the summer season, then it’s time to address workplace heat safety. That way, your crew will be ready for any weather they face.
Know the Signs and Consequences of Heat-Related Injury
The best defense against heat injury is attention. By paying attention and responding to the emerging signs of heat illness, the worst injuries can be avoided. Those at elevated risk of heat injury – the elderly and those with high blood pressure – may experience a more rapid and severe onset of symptoms.
There are multiple types of heat injuries, ranging in severity. They include:
- Heat cramps – Heat cramps are a common first sign of heat injury and are more common in people who sweat heavily. They’re caused by an excessive loss of sodium via sweating and can produce painful spasms in the abdomen or extremities.
- Heat exhaustion – Heat exhaustion sits between heat cramps and heat stroke in terms of severity. When the body starts losing its ability to regulate its internal temperature, heat exhaustion follows. Signs include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, excessive thirst, and reduced urination.
- Heat stroke – Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness and is capable of inflicting fatal injury. In people with heat stroke, internal temperatures are dangerously high, and the body’s sweat-related processes fail. Heat stroke can quickly cause severe, including permanent, injury. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, confusion, seizures and either extreme sweating or no sweating at all. Emergency treatment is required to prevent fatal injury.
- Rhabdomyolysis – Rhabdomyolysis commonly presents with heat stroke and is characterized by the rapid destruction and breakdown of muscle tissue. It can be caused by many things, including prolonged exertion in hot conditions.
Rhabdomyolysis is a medical emergency, as muscle tissue releases proteins (myoglobin) when it is destroyed. The myoglobin can reach the kidneys and cause serious damage to them. Symptoms include muscle cramps, weakness, and dark-colored urine. Many people who experience rhabdomyolysis, though, are asymptomatic.
By taking note of the above signs and symptoms, your safety teams will spot heat injuries before they progress from bad to worse.
Create a Heat-Specific Safety Plan
Ideally, heat injuries are prevented, not just treated. And at busy worksites, the best way to prevent injury is to plan for it.
For some industries and major construction projects, safety plans are an OSHA requirement. However, many project managers go a step further and create site-specific safety plans – which often boil down to hazard-specific safety plans. On worksites where heat is a likely hazard, a heat-specific safety plan will improve preparedness should a heat injury occur. This plan may include the following:
- Temperature data taken from the worksite
- Provisions for how workers can monitor temperatures in the field
- Where “hotspots” are likely to emerge
- How and where workers will be given breaks to recover
- Where heat-related first aid resources are located
- What to do when a heat injury does emerge
- Who to contact if a heat-related emergency occurs – or where to take an injured worker if there is an emergency
- Assigning who is responsible for enforcing heat safety protocols
Once this plan is in place, it should be communicated to every work team and demonstrated through example by project leadership.
Establish Areas Where Workers Can Rest and Hydrate
Breaks and hydration are necessary for safety purposes, which means a shady, cool area to rest and plenty of water to drink. You can establish break areas with a tent, in a temporary, climate-controlled building, or just a well-shaded spot. Target areas that receive shade for extended periods of time, as these remain cooler throughout the day. High-volume fans are another inexpensive, but effective means of heat control.
Heat illness follows dehydration, so frequent water breaks are important for worker health. Depending on the heat index (a combination of temperature and humidity), workers may need up to 32 ounces of water every hour (a cup every 15 minutes) to maintain hydration. Make sure that there’s enough for every crew member, and that someone is assigned to get more water if necessary.
Keep an Eye on Changing Field Conditions, and Respond Accordingly
Even when the proper safety measures are taken, conditions can get to the point where working safely is too risky to manage. These dangerous conditions can creep up on worksites and safety managers, so monitoring the site’s heat index is a priority.
One way to do this is with cards designed with encapsulated liquid crystal (ELC) thermometers. ELC is made up of crystals that are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. Specifically, they twist and shift as heat increases, changing the way they absorb and reflect wavelengths of light. To us, we see this as a change in color. As heat increases or decreases, ELC thermometers change color, and they’re tiny enough to be incorporated into laminated cards.
If every worker is given one of these cards, which they wear on a lanyard or keep in their pocket – they’ll always be aware of worsening field conditions. ELC thermometers are accurate to within a couple degrees, too, so they can be relied on.
With the Right Safety Measures and Resources in Place, Workers Can Beat the Summer Heat
For many workers, heat is unavoidable. It can be planned for, though, and this goes a long way in preventing heat injuries. Such preparation should include onsite first aid resources, safety personnel, frequent hydration breaks, and heat monitoring equipment, among other measures.
With these policies in place, your teams can avoid a potentially tragic, and certainly avoidable emergency.